- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002

A 17th-century proverb declares that a "fire is a good servant but a bad master." A fire, indeed, can be wonderfully cozy, and people across the nation during cold winter months enjoy the ancient source of heat as it crackles and sparkles in the fireplace.
However, without the right equipment, wood, fireplace and chimney care, a fire can become unruly, smoky and an altogether unpleasant experience.
"I remember one time when I was a kid and we had a slumber party. My mother started a fire in the fireplace, but the damper was closed. The smoke filled the whole house in minutes," says Tara Manson, a homeowner in Northwest who on a recent morning had her chimney inspected by chimney sweep Greg Stang of High's Chimney Service in Rockville.
"We thought it was fun, but my mother didn't," Ms. Manson says.
A recommended way to avoid chimney fires and smoke-filled homes is to have a chimney inspection once a year or after burning one cord of wood, says Mike Pinto, a chimney sweep who also is with High's Chimney Service.
Failing to open the damper or having a chimney in disrepair are not the only circumstances that can fill the house with smoke, however. Using the wrong type of wood can have similar consequences, if not quite as dramatic.
Using green wood wood that hasn't been seasoned (or dried) also can create smoke, Mr. Pinto says.
Also, green wood doesn't burn easily, and it sizzles and hisses and can create more creosote in the chimney, a cause of chimney fires.
That's why burning a Christmas tree is a bad idea.
"It's going to leave a real sticky deposit, and it would probably smoke more," Mr. Pinto says.
It takes about nine to 18 months for wood to season after it has been split.
"You want to use seasoned hardwood, like oak, hickory or maple," Mr. Pinto says. "They burn hotter and longer."
Other good hardwoods to burn are poplar, walnut, dogwood and elm. Softwoods are OK to burn, too, Mr. Stang says. They just burn much faster and don't put out as much heat as the hardwoods.
Among softwoods are cedar, cypress, fir, pine and redwood.
"Cedar burns fine, and it smells great," Mr. Stang says. "It just doesn't last as long."
Manufactured logs, which are made out of sawdust, are very efficient, especially if you just want a one- or two-hour fire, Mr. Stang says. You can't move them around, however, because they will disintegrate into the fine powder of which they are made, he says.
"They're perfect for a small fire, but they are kind of messy," he adds.
Though 55 million American households have at least one fireplace, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association in Arlington, in many homes, people don't have a clue as to fire-building basics.
"People ask us all the time to show them how to start a fire," Mr. Pinto says.
This is how it's done:
Most important, make sure the damper is open (to avoid duplicating Ms. Manson's childhood experience).
Then place the grate in the fireplace it should be placed close to the back wall of the firebox. "You always want to use a grate because you need air to complete the combustion," Mr. Pinto says.
Place a couple of logs a few inches apart on the grate (the main thing is not to crowd the logs). Put crumpled pieces of newspaper between them and cover the newspapers with kindling (dry, small sticks of wood; softwood is preferable in this case).
Open windows for a few minutes to allow ventilation, and prime the flue before igniting the fire. "There is a natural downdraft in chimneys, and by lighting a piece of newspaper or even blowing a blow dryer up the chimney, you can help create an upwards draft," Mr. Stang says. A newspaper torch can be held above the logs for a minute or two. A torch can be created by twisting a newspaper tightly on one end and loosely on the other, then igniting the loose end.
Light the kindling and paper. (Use black-and-white newspaper and plain white paper; avoid glossy paper and wrapping paper, which may cause more smoke.) Once the kindling is burning, more logs can be added.
Some recommended equipment includes a fire screen and a brush, poker, tongs and shovel to arrange the logs while they are burning.
Place spare logs that you are planning to use that day or evening at least three feet away from the fire and away from jumping sparks.
Never store the bulk of logs indoors because they can contain mold and insects, Mr. Stang says. It's fine to keep the logs outside as long as they can be in a relatively dry place, in a shed or under a tarp.
Other safety precautions include keeping a fire extinguisher close by and equipping the house with smoke detectors.

The sales numbers are not completed for 2001, but the hearth industry is expecting that they will show an increased interest in the use of fireplaces, partly because of a rise in energy prices early in the year, says Don Johnson, director of market research at the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.
"And after 9/11, I think we saw a type of cocooning atmosphere, where people spent more time at home" and enjoyed such things as fireplaces, Mr. Johnson says.
Though fireplaces may not be the best or most efficient way to heat the house, they certainly are more appealing than staring at a gas furnace.
It's difficult to determine whether people use their fireplaces for aesthetic appeal or to heat their homes, Mr. Johnson says.
"I think it's a combination of both," he says.
Ms. Manson fits that description. She says fires cut her gas bills but they also are "so cozy and create a nice atmosphere."
Jackie Koury, a renter in Georgetown who recently had her fireplace and chimney inspected, says that to her, there is something very sensually attractive about fireplaces.
"Fires are such a neat phenomena. I love the way they sound, the crackle," Ms. Koury says. "They're cozy, and they create such a romantic atmosphere."
The connection between fire and love or romance is nothing new. The two have been intertwined in literature for centuries.
About 400 years ago, the English explorer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh wrote the following eternal truth about the link between love and fire:
But true love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never old, never dead, from itself ever turning

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